Harris' visit to Guatemala and Mexico a mix of diplomacy and controversy

Vice President Kamala Harris and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador arrive for a bilateral meeting Tuesday, June 8, 2021, at the National Palace in Mexico City. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Vice President Kamala Harris wrapped up her first official foreign trip Tuesday, having gained exposure on the world stage in trying to reset U.S. relations in Latin America. But she got more attention back home for something else: controversies over her words on immigration.

Harris first angered some on the left in the United States with her strong statement Monday in Guatemala telling desperate would-be migrants, “Do not come” to the U.S. border, and warning that they’d be “turned back.” She then created a political dust-up — fanned on the right — with her replies to questions about why she had yet to visit the U.S.-Mexico border.

The blowback swirled amid the vice president’s diplomatic debut in Mexico City on Tuesday, a day after her visit to Guatemala’s capital. She met for more than two hours with Mexico’s populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and declared “we are embarking on a new era” in U.S.-Mexico relations, and with the world more broadly.

Harris, sitting across from the Mexican president at a long polished-wood table in a salon of the National Palace, noted the “interconnection and interdependence” of the two nations.

At a later news conference before returning to the United States, Harris said, “Do I declare this trip a success? Yes, I do.” She added, “It is a success in terms of creating a pathway that is about progress.” Asked whether she would commit to visit the border, where migrants have converged seeking entry, and do so soon, she replied, “Yes, I will, and I have before.”

In her two stops, the vice president pledged millions of dollars in U.S. loans and investment for housing and agriculture in both southern Mexico and northern Guatemala, and $130 million for improving working conditions in Mexico, including addressing safety issues and child labor. Such projects are key to the focus of Harris’ diplomacy: trying to discourage residents from fleeing the impoverished region.

Her two-day trip to Guatemala and Mexico was aimed in particular at curbing the influx of Central American migrants through Mexico to the U.S. border, by addressing the root causes such as poverty and violence that spur their flight. In Guatemala City, she also met with that nation’s president, community activists and entrepreneurs.

In her news conference, Harris emphasized, “The issue of root causes is not going to be fixed in one trip that took two days.”

But the questions that dogged the vice president, as well as administration officials back at the White House on Tuesday, were from reporters and politicians asking why she has not visited the border as part of her mandate to confront the “root causes” of Central Americans’ migration, and about the criticism of her warning to migrants.

Vice President Kamala Harris, in a mask, with U.S. and Mexican flags in background
Vice President Kamala Harris meets with labor leaders in Mexico City. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“The U.S. spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter. “We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”

The Interfaith Migration Coalition, a group of U.S.-based religious leaders, admonished Harris that seeking asylum was not illegal.

Harris told reporters traveling with her, “The work that we are doing by being in Guatemala yesterday and in Mexico today is the work of reinforcing the point that we have to look at not only what is actually happening at the border, but what is causing that to happen.”

In Guatemala, she’d made a similar point and added, “I will continue to be focused on that kind of work as opposed to grand gestures.”

Harris especially provoked criticism with her remarks in an interview with NBC News late Monday. She bristled when broadcaster Lester Holt pressed her about a border visit. “And I haven’t been to Europe,” Harris responded. “I don’t understand the point that you’re making. I’m not discounting the importance of the border.”

In Mexico City, Harris’ primary focus was immigration but she also sought to more broadly define the Biden administration’s pivotal diplomatic relationship with Mexico, America’s southern neighbor, close ally and No. 1 trading partner.

“We made clear that the United States considers Mexico to be a partner on many of these issues,” Harris said, characterizing her talks with López Obrador as candid and covering migration, human smuggling and drug trafficking.

Before their one-on-one session Tuesday, López Obrador welcomed Harris in a brief ceremony on the central patio of the National Palace. “Mucho gusto,” she responded in Spanish. “It’s very good to see you.”

They were greeted by salutes from uniformed military personnel and looked on as American and Mexican representatives signed an agreement to broaden U.S.-Mexico cooperation on sending development money to the three Central American countries that are the source of most northbound migrants fleeing poverty and violence — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

As López Obrador showed Harris the spectacular mural by Diego Rivera that overlooks the courtyard and depicts centuries of Mexican history, he responded to a question shouted by a reporter asking whether he would increase security at Mexico’s border with the United States.

Kamala Harris sits at a table flanked by two advisors.
Vice President Kamala Harris, with John Creamer of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico and her national security advisor, Nancy McEldowney, holds a roundtable with female entrepreneurs in Mexico City. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“We are very pleased to have her here and we will touch on that subject but always addressing the fundamental root causes,” he said.

The Mexican president was the only member of either delegation who did not wear a mask.

Ricardo Zúñiga, the administration’s special envoy to the three Central American countries known as the Northern Triangle, said Mexico, like the United States, had an interest in deterring migration from them. “We are both destination countries” for migration from the Northern Triangle, he told reporters aboard Air Force Two on Monday night.

In addition to meeting with López Obrador, Harris spoke with female entrepreneurs and held a separate meeting with labor leaders.

She is leading the Biden administration’s efforts to expand organized labor in the United States, and administration officials see López Obrador, who has also championed labor rights, as a kindred spirit. Yet some U.S. unions complain that Mexico is not living up to its promises in trade deals to support labor rights.

Administration officials had not expected the meeting with López Obrador to be necessarily easy or predictable. In national elections Sunday, he appeared to be losing sway in the legislative branch, where many of his allies were defeated. The final results are not yet clear.

López Obrador has at times taken shots at the United States to win favor with his domestic audience. Just before a virtual meeting with Harris in May, he sharply criticized American aid to an anti-corruption group, even as Harris was emphasizing the need to root out corruption in Latin America to stem migration north.

López Obrador has attacked other independent watchdogs and reporters, posing a challenge to the Biden administration given its stated goal of promoting democratic institutions around the world. Yet the leftist leader has maintained favor with the United States, including during the Trump administration, for helping with border enforcement.

Bierman reported from Mexico City and Wilkinson from Washington.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.